Despite the poverty, violence and corruption, Brazil has more than a few islands of peace and prosperity. Even in the 80s, the so-called lost decade, there was tangible progress in education, health and the poor people’s pocket. Good news is even more common these days. Check for yourself.
French chronicler Auguste de Saint-Hilaire didn’t like at all what he saw in the south of Brazil while traveling in
the area at the beginning of the nineteen century. “It’s a town of prostitutes and thieves,” he wrote about a little
place known as Vila Nossa Senhora da Luz dos Pinhais. The once despised village has changed its name to Curitiba and has become an appealing post-card for the best that Brazil has to offer. The changes implemented by the city are
admired across the globe and administrators from around the world including those from New York have traveled to the capital of the state of Paraná to see what makes it tick.
Curitiba is the sixth biggest Brazilian capital. Frequently, the increase of population makes life harder and
sometimes unbearable for the people living in most urban areas, but in Curitiba the opposite has taken place. In 1970 the city
had half a million souls. Today, with 1.6 million inhabitants, the region has almost a disproportionate amount of green
area per capita, better public transportation, less traffic jams, less pollution, exceptional options for leisure and greater
job opportunities. Its residents can enjoy more than 1,000 public squares, 16 large parks, more than 150 libraries, close
to 50 art galleries, 45 museums and 56 m² of green area for each resident, more than three times the size
recommended by the World Health Organization. It not only has the best public transportation system in Brazil and in the world,
but it also holds the lowest crime rate of any Brazilian big city.
In 1992, Albert Appleton, who was then responsible for New York’s environmental protection department,
commented, “If there is a model city for the future, this city will have to do what Curitiba is doing now.” After visiting
the city, Toronto’s former mayor, Arthur Eggleton, observed, “Curitiba is one the most pleasant cities I’ve seen in
any part of the world.” In an interview with
The Wall Street Journal, Michael Cohen, World Bank’s head of the
Urban Development Department, didn’t mask his enthusiasm after visiting Curitiba: “This is a model city for the First
World not only for the Third.”
Curitiba is just one example of a Brazil that has worked out. Despite the country’s worldwide bad image
constituted of violence, misery and corruption, Brazil has experienced progress beyond that which can be measured by
dollars, roads, factories, and pollution. The nation also got better. Even in the 80’s, the so-called lost-decade, the quality
of life improved in Brazil. It was during this period that illiteracy was almost cut in half from 20% in 1980 to a little
more than 11% in 1993.
A just-released UN report reveals that Brazil is no longer a country divided into two worlds: one small and very
wealthy and the other extremely poor. Most interestingly the study shows that 72.6 million Brazilians, basically half of
the population, maintain a first-world standard of life. Another 25.4 million constitute a lower middle class on its way
to prosperity. As for the poor, their numbers are still huge, 48.9 million, and their conditions are worse than that of
other poor people in countries such as Mexico and Argentina.
Brazil has been called “Belindia,” a fusion of the words Belgium and India, which implies the contrast between
wealth and poverty in the country. Now, according to the new report, a more appropriate denomination would
be “Belbulindia,” in which `bul’ stands for Bulgaria, an ex-Communist country undergoing a rapid process of
development. The 185-page research, which lasted a year and a half, talks about a Brazilian “golden age,” which,
theoretically, is just starting.
The study is based on Human Development Index (HDI) which set Canada in 5th in the world, and the US in 19th.
The UN index grades from 0 to 1 (Niger being the last on the rank with 0.116 and Japan, the first, 0.996) and has been
used since 1990. It measures life expectancy, adult literacy and Gross National Product per capita. The state of Rio
Grande do Sul appears in best shape with a living standard very close to that of Belgium which has a HDI of 0.966 and
holds 15th place. The Brazilian India encompasses the nine states of the Northeastern region of the country, plus Acre
and Pará. In average, Brazil’s HDI is 0.797 setting it in 63rd place, similar to most East European countries.
Since 1980 the number of Brazilians benefiting from running water and public sewage increased from 50% to 75%
the population. Similarly those accessing electrical power at home expanded from 66% in 1980 to 90% in 1993.
Poverty is still a serious problem and it is believed that close to 17 million Brazilians barely earn enough money to
make ends meet, living just above the starvation line. There is also a serious need for over 5 million houses to shelter
the homeless. On the other hand, however, Brazil’s population isn’t growing at a 3% annual rate anymore. This
growth has been cut in half and today is no more than 1.4% a year.
While the average childbearing was about six children per woman between 1940 and 1960, it has dropped to a
more controllable average of 2.5. All of this leads us to believe that the existing annual per capita income of $3,544
will increase its value much faster in the present rate of development.
The country is also coming of age politically. Democracy seems to be thriving. Fifty years ago only 16% of
the population could vote. This number has inflated to 50% in the most recent presidential election held in 1994.
Brazilians themselves seem much happier with their country now that inflation has been reduced in the last two years from
around 50% a month to a monthly rate of less than 2%. Asked if they wanted to leave the country in 1992, more than
50% answered positively. The majority now, according to a Vox Populi poll said no and 84% confided that they were
proud to be Brazilian.
Going back to Brazil’s model city of Curitiba, the green area there grew 100 times in the last 20 years. More than
4% of the city’s land is occupied by greenery today. This proliferation of forestation was, in great part, a response to
a problem ineffectively tackled by previous administrations: the floods. Instead of building channels, the
traditional solution to this problem in most cities throughout the world, Curitiba’s administrators opted for the formation of
lakes which were in turn populated with ducks and transformed into parks with plenty of trees planted around them.
Floods are now history, and the city gained a series of new leisure areas.
Recycling has also reached a high in Curitiba. While cities like Montreal in Canada recycles 10% of its trash,
likewise in the US, the capital of Paraná has a recycling rate of 95%. It has become the world’s recycling capital through
its `Garbage That Is Not Garbage program.’ Ten percent of Curitiba’s population still live in
favelas, but even the shanty towns have a thriving recycling
program known as `green exchange.’ Items such as plastic, paper and
glass can be traded for food, toys, books and school
material. There are more than 20,000 families who participate in this program. The effort has also improved
trash removal from the streets, which in turn helps the drainage of water, avoiding city floods. Another benefit from
this program is the support it has given to the fight against disease spread by rat waste.
One of the latest inventions from the very creative minds of Curitiba’s administrators are the Vilas de Ofícios
(Jobs’ Villages), an ambitious idea which hopes to hit two targets simultaneously: providing job and residency. Initiated a
little over a year ago, the Vilas de Ofício integrate in the same area both house and workshop. These are
commercial installations set up close to residential buildings and other areas with considerable pedestrian traffic, planned
and managed by Curitiba’s Companhia de Habitação Popular (Cohab).
A group of experts, including social workers, decide which business should be installed in each area and which
family qualifies to reside in the space. Various types of training are available within these locations, as well to those
candidates who are eligible. Each hub of the Vila de Ofícios holds a minimum of six, maximum of 31 units. Currently there
are eight hubs and this number should expand to 15 by the end of the year.
Financing for this project is done by Cohab itself, with parcel payments of up to 20 years. The monthly
installment is around $150, reduced by 50% in the first two years of the new business. The applicants are simple people like
bicycle repairman Wilson Bueno de Morais who after four months at Bairro Novo, the place of his Vila de Ofício,
couldn’t be more enthusiastic. In an interview with daily newspaper
O Estado de São Paulo he declared, “Overnight
I’ve become an entrepreneur. This is the best business spot I’ve ever had. Here, the person comes to cut his hair,
leaves the bicycle to be fixed and still eats a snack.”
Morais, who has a wife and two kids, used to sell bicycle parts from door to door. At the new place business
picked up so quickly that he was forced to immediately hire an aid as well as a servant to help his wife Rita with the
house chores. Rita herself takes over the bicycle repair shop when her husband has to go out to purchase parts.
Curitiba is also the city of Rua 24 Horas (24 Hour Street), a 120-meter thoroughfare covered with glass in which
three dozen stores, including a bookstore, a restaurant, a flower shop and government bureau never close. Known also
as Citizenship Streets these areas allow people to do a variety of things like send a letter, open a checking account,
pay a utility bill, get a marriage license, file a police report or take a class.
A great deal of merit for the latter days of Curitiba goes to Jayme Lerner, an architect who was chosen to be
mayor of the city during the military regime, when mayors of towns considered important for national security, were
not elected but chosen by state governors. In this particular case, Paraná’s governor was looking for a candidate
who wouldn’t cast a shadow over his own office
Over the three terms in which he occupied this position Lerner opened exclusive roads for buses, closed
downtown to car traffic and planted thousands of trees. He talked about his philosophy of work in an interview with
weekly newsmagazine Veja: “Curitiba’s secret is simplicity. The cities of the future will have little to do with Flash
Gordon’s movies. We have to abandon grandiose solutions.” There were subways or freeways during his tenure.
Lerner has become a worldwide celebrity among urbanists. In 1990, the United Nations awarded him for
his Environment Program. Two years later, Washington DC’s International Institute for Energy Conservation
again honored him with yet another prize, this time because of the fuel resources
saved in public transportation, 25% more than cities of the same size all over the world.
One of Lerner’s most celebrated creations, the
ligeirinho bus (little fast one) was even tested in New York. The
system is used by 75% of the population (compare this to Rio — 57% — and São Paulo — 45%) and comprises 500 km.
of lines. It works just as fast as the subway, yet costs 20 times less to build. People enter the buses through
tubular entrances where electronic machines collect the fare. The system proved to be so efficient that 30% of the
estimated 500,000 private cars are left home on weekdays.
On the counter-current of the philosophy behind the creation of Brasília, a city entirely divided into areas of
interest — shopping zone, residency zone, entertainment zones and school zones — Curitiba mixes a little of everything
in each area. Even the standard housing projects were abolished. When housing units are built together they are
all different one from the other.
All of this has made the Curitibano a very proud citizen. In a recent poll asked if he would like to move to another
city 99% of them responded with a, “no way, under no circumstance.” The same question posed to a New York
resident revealed that 60% of them wanted to leave town. Curitiba also has become a testing ground for new
drama performances. There, almost 5% of the population better off economically (classes A and B, according to the
Brazilian classification) regularly attend the theater. That is twice the rate of other areas in the country.
Lerner offers the recipe for those willing to replicate his achievements: “It’s not enough to only change
downtown’s façade. You have to stimulate activities and services which draw people to the region.” In the United States, cities
like Los Angeles were able to create a new downtown, but this is a space that is entirely abandoned as soon as the
offices close for the day. Instead of bringing banks and offices Curitiba encouraged bars, restaurants, movie houses,
libraries and theaters to open shop there. And made it attractive for people to live close to all this action.
During the recent Istambul’s Habitat 2, an urbanization project for a
favela (shanty town) in Diadema was
presented as a practical solution for the betterment of living conditions in deteriorating areas.
Diadema, a heavily industrialized town on the outskirts of São Paulo with approximately 320,000 residents, has set
the standard for solving social problems of those living under poverty level. After 14 years under a PT (Partido
dos Trabalhadores — Workers’ Party) administration the town substantially improved its educational system. Its
medical assistance, frequently compared to that of developed countries, draw people from neighboring cities who lie
about their address just to be treated in Diadema.
Known by the pompous name of Urbanization Project: a Process of Citizenry Construction, the Diadema plan,
has urbanized 88 of the 192 existing
favelas in the last four years. City Hall is investing $10 million a year in housing,
that is 6% of its budget, Despite all this effort there are still 20,000 families who live in shanties. There is hope,
however, since the Conselho Municipal de Habitação (Municipal Council for Housing) continues to analyze new
proposals presented by the favelados themselves, who are represented by the association of residents. The consulting group
has a two-year mandate and is formed by four delegates from City Hall, one from City Council plus five
elected representatives who belong to popular associations.
The construction is made utilizing the so-called
mutirão system in which neighbors get together to build new
houses. This method allows a 30% price reduction when compared to an outside contractor. Right now there are more
than 300 families in temporary shelters waiting for the Jupiter Housing unit to be concluded. There will be
sufficient apartments to accommodate that number. In the last two years Diadema has also started a program to canalize
heavily polluted water streams which had become a serious sanitary problem.
Helped by the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Associação Comunitária Monte Azul, the Jardim Monte
Azul favela in the south area of São Paulo, not far from Diadema, has become a role model in dealing with lack of
resources successfully . The residents themselves have created and manage a theater for 150 people, a recycled paper
workshop, a bakery, a medical clinic, and seven child-care facilities with a maximum of 20 children per unit, and also a
number of youth centers.
“The secret here is honesty with the money they get,” said in an interview with daily
Folha de São Paulo German art teacher Renate Keller Ignacio, who teaches at Monte Azul. “That’s what makes donors trust our work.” More than
80% of the monthly private donations — around $12,000 — come from Germany. Other contributors are
Brazilian associations and São Paulo’s city hall. Last February, for example, the Monte Azul Association received a little
over $93,000 but spent less than $85,000.
The city of São Paulo is developing a controversial program of
desfavelização known as Cingapura (for the city
of Singapore where the practice was started) which urbanizes the same area where the
favelas are now established, building housing units there. Since
December 1,904 units have been delivered. Another 7,875 are being built
in 54 different favelas. When moving to the new apartments the former
favelados agree to pay $58 a month for the next
20 years. All this work, however, will not mean more than a little dent in the problem of housing, since it is estimated
that in the city of São Paulo alone 1.9 million people currently live in
favelas or other substandard housing units,
without running water or sewer. The Cingapura project has been a fertile ground for experiments. In the North Zone’s
Zachi Narchi favela, for example, one of the buildings is being heated by a solar energy system. This should lower by
half the utility bill that sometimes costs twice the apartment’s monthly installment.
In Rio, the favela problem was nonexistent until 1895. As of that point, development of shanty towns grew
rapidly. First it was the Morro da Previdência
favela in downtown. In 1920, there were 25 of these shanty towns and
starting in the 50s, 10 new ones were being formed annually. From 1981 to 1990, for example, 102 new
favelas sprung around Rio contributing to the total of 570 today.
In 1991, according to the Census, 941,750 people (17% of Rio’s population) lived in Rio’s
favelas. Since 1993, however, the number of shanties has been decreasing. Twenty three of them are in the process of being removed.
And 91 others should be converted into neighborhoods with all public services by the end of 1999 — a move that
should benefit 610 thousand people.
Rio is spending $670 million on this project (60% from the Interamerican Bank for Development and 40% from
city hall). The Favela-Bairro project alone, coordinated by the Rio’s Housing Department, consumes $620 million. It’s
a giant effort. The Jacarezinho favela, for example, has more than 35,000 residents. The process to integrate the city
can be very lengthy. Favela Rocinha has been undergoing changes since 1975. Today it has a bank, two post offices,
and 2,000 shops some which even accept credit cards. Some residents even have access to the `luxuries’ of other
middle class nationals from wealthier neighborhoods like a car, telephone lines, or a satellite dish. For others, however,
water and electricity haven’t arrived yet.
In Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, 98% of the population have tap water at home. Public sewage,
however, exists only in 75% of the houses, with current effort towards raising this rate to 85% by the end of the year. For
six years now quality of life has been improving in the city. Most people have credited these changes to the
so-called participatory budget, a democratic way of deciding where the resources should be applied, a strategy created by
former mayor Olívio Dutra and kept by his successor Tarso Genro.
Porto Alegre was divided into 16 regions. Representatives of these areas get together twice a month to study
proposals and suggest measures. While the budget used to draw 1,000 people in 1990, today these meetings attract more
than 14,000 citizens. They are the ones who elected the 86 members of the Participatory Budget Council. Thanks to
this system, 600 miles of pluvial sewers have been built in eight years. Combined, all other administrations prior,
had constructed no more than 700 miles.
All over the country there are smaller and bigger miracles. See the city of Brusque, in Santa Catarina, for
example, which was undergoing an economic boom while the country was going through the motions of a recession during
the 80s. It was during this period that many nouveaux riches appeared mostly through franchises like Colcci, the
biggest apparel franchisor in the country with more than 200 franchisees. This in turn created jobs which drew at least
10,000 people from all over the country.
Pelotas, with 300,000 residents the third most populated city in Rio Grande do Sul has solved most of its problems
by dismissing federal and state programs and assuming the tasks. While people in the bigger cities like São Paulo
have to wait two years to get a new telephone line, in Pelotas the procedure doesn’t take more than five days. And there
is no place in Brazil where telephones work better.
Another town from Rio Grande do Sul has solved the problem of unemployment. Even in the worst of times its 20
shoe factories and agro-industries gave jobs to any one of the 20,000 residents able and willing to work. Their yearly
per capita income has jumped to $8,750. And illiterates are a rarity now. The worst salary in City Hall are those of the
trash collectors: $300. Three times the minimum wage in other regions of Brazil.
Almost everything here is municipal: the schools, the health care, the transportation, the water and sewage service.
The city offers one of the cheapest waters in the country and 99% of the population is benefited by it.
Still in Rio Grande do Sul, a city that seems transplanted from Europe, Teutônia, is a first world town in a third
world country. Here illiteracy and unemployment are zero, there is a car for every three people, infant mortality (2 for
1,000 children up to one year) is 22 times lower than the Brazilian average. The mayor used to complain about the lack
of what to do, “The problems we had were all solved and there was very little left for me to accomplish.” Here is
the paradise of mini-farms and the help-each-other mentality. Most properties have between two and six hectares and
are owned by families who produce milk, a staple of the local economy. The residents, however, don’t like to boast
about their achievements. They are afraid people will start flocking there, destroying their little Garden of Eden.
In another front, Petrolina in the Pernambuco backlands together with Juazeiro in Bahia, have transformed a
desert into blooming fields. Through bombs and channels they transport water from the São Francico river, 30 miles
inland. The land has become fertile ground and today they export mangos, melons, grapes and
acerolas to Europe and the United States. While the average vineyard in the South produces 16 tons per hectare a year, in Juazeiro where
there’s always sun, this amount jumps to 50 tons. Petrolina has also become a model city with sewers in 75% of the
houses compared to the average 16% in that region and its teachers make close to $400 a month, an exceptional number
when compared to the less than $20 that some teachers receive in the state of Ceará, for example.
Even some of the poorest states in Brazil are finding solutions that bode well for the future. Ceará, the fifth
poorest state in the country, has been awarded international prizes for dealing with child mortality and public health. The
state has looked for inspiration in China and created an army of more than 7,000 health agents who go from house to
house teaching some elementary lesson of hygiene and nutrition.
Despite being the second poorest state, Paraíba has created an education program that virtually guarantees school
for every school-age child. Besides that, the program also gives food, books, school material and clothes to these
children. In Piauí, the poorest of all states, with an annual per capita income of $600, one third of the Brazilian average,
an agriculture program has been a success drawing farmers from other states. The solution was to open roads,
install infrastructure and give fiscal incentives to producers willing to plant, mostly soy bean, in the area. While in the
South one hectare of land costs $4,000 here they are available for between $100 to $500. The time of working in
exchange for food has ended. Now specialized workers, like tractor operators, don’t make less than $200. A revolution for
this region where 83% of the population has to make ends meet with $50 or less a month.